God's oppressed children
Many Indian houses still have a simple pit toilet, which consists of a large hole in the floor. The feces are collected at night by "manual scavengers," who, Sujatha Gidla writes in Ants Among Elephants, "carry away human shit" and whose "tools are nothing but a small broom and a tin plate."
Most are women. In the past, they would "fill their palm-leaf baskets with excrement and carry it off on their heads five, six miles to some place on the outskirts of town where they're allowed to dispose of it." In many places today, baskets have been replaced with buckets and carts, but the disease-ridden job of cleaning toilets, septic tanks, gutters, and sewers still falls on Dalits, formerly "untouchable" Hindus.
One out of six Indians is a Dalit, but for years I neither witnessed nor imagined the life of one, although almost every week small columns in the newspapers reported the murder, rape, and torture of them.
If any of the students at my schools were Dalits, I did not know -- such obliviousness about a hierarchy that benefited me was part of my upper-caste privilege. I did hear much whispered malevolence among relatives against the "Scheduled Castes" (the official name of Dalits) and the affirmative action program designed to bring them equal citizenship.
It was only at my provincial university, in a left-wing student group, that I first came into regular contact with Dalits; and it was while reading Ralph Ellison in my late teens that I began to reflect on the historical injustices and social and psychological pathologies that had conspired to make tens of millions of people invisible.
India, the world's largest democracy, also happens to be the world's most hierarchical society; its most powerful and wealthy citizens, who are overwhelmingly upper-caste, are very far from checking their privilege or understanding the cruel disadvantages of birth among the low castes.
Dalits remain largely invisible in popular cinema, sitcoms, television commercials, and soap operas. No major museums commemorate their long suffering. Unlike racism in the United States, which provokes general condemnation, there are no social taboos -- as distinct from legal provisions -- against hatred or loathing of low-caste Hindus. Many Dalits are still treated as "untouchables," despite the equal rights granted to them by India's democratic constitution.
This constitution was drafted in the late 1940s with the help of B R Ambedkar, a Dalit leader, whose reputation as a bold and iconoclastic thinker has been eclipsed by the cults of his upper-caste rivals Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi.
The founding principles of India's democracy that Ambedkar helped enshrine are even more far-reaching than America's in their guarantee of equal rights and absolute prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
But high-minded legislation in India is rarely accompanied by a necessary change in hearts and minds. The institution of caste, the social group to which Indians belong by birth, remains the most formidable obstacle to an egalitarian ethos.
In the hierarchical order, a Brahmin ranked highest due to his "pure" occupations of priest and scholar, and the Dalit was degraded to the lowest rung because of his proximity to human excreta and other polluting bodily substances.
Ambedkar, for instance, belonged to a subcaste whose members were forced to walk with brooms tied to their waists, sweeping away their evidently contaminating footprints. Among many activists he was deeply frustrated by how Dalits, denied access to education and property, had been "completely disabled," as he wrote in Annihilation of Caste (1936):
They could not bear arms, and without arms they could not rebel. They were all ploughmen -- or rather, condemned to be ploughmen -- and they never were allowed to convert their ploughshares into swords. They had no bayonets, and therefore everyone who chose, could and did sit upon them. On account of the Caste System, they could receive no education. They could not think out or know the way to their salvation. They were condemned to be lowly; and not knowing the way of escape, and not having the means of escape, they became reconciled to eternal servitude, which they accepted as their inescapable fate.
This terrible destiny has been justified over time by all kinds of religious and philosophical rationalizations. India's Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi claims that manual scavengers realized ages ago that it is their "duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods" and "that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries."
Such opinions are encouraged by the fact that the values, beliefs, prejudices, phobias, and taboos of the caste system were deeply internalized by its victims, including Indian Christians and Muslims, whose ancestors tried to escape the stigma of untouchability by renouncing Hinduism: the family of Sujatha Gidla converted to Christianity.
This implicit surrender to the hierarchical norms of deference and obligation has long prevented solidarity among the oppressed castes, forestalling any concerted challenge from below to the entire iniquitous system.
Indeed, India's multilayered social order seems more fiendishly organized than the simple hierarchy that placed whites over blacks in the United States. The advent of Donald Trump and the mainstreaming of white supremacism has refocused attention on how the degradation of African-Americans in the nineteenth century served to affirm the rights and dignity of poor white men. "White men," the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis wrote, "have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race."
But in the Hindu caste system defined by "graded inequality," as Ambedkar brilliantly defined it, "there is no such class as a completely unprivileged class except the one which is at the base of the social pyramid"; "every class is interested in maintaining the system" and indeed does so by dominating or degrading the one just below it.
The Marathi poet Govindaraj put it more bluntly: Hindu society consists of men "who bow their heads to the kicks from above and who simultaneously give a kick below, never thinking to resist the one or refrain from the other."
Pankaj Mishra is an Indian essayist and novelist and this write up first appear in
The New York Review of Books